1. Transport
February 14, 2020

Think roads are dangerous? Sometimes we aren’t even safe on pavements

By Laura Laker

Our pavements are supposed to be a safe haven from motor traffic, aren’t they? Well, yes – except when they aren’t. 

New analysis of 15 years of road collision data in England, Scotland and Wales, revealed that 548 pedestrians have died in collisions on pavements or verges – roughly 40 a year – between 2005 and 2018. 

Most were killed by drivers who lost control of their vehicles through dangerous driving, momentary inattention, inexperience, or a medical episode, all with devastating consequences. Six of those – around 1 per cent – were killed in collision with cycles. 

The research is part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long journalistic investigation into pedestrian safety I launched with the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in January. Through it we have uncovered examples of some of the most dangerous driving on Britain’s roads over the past 15 years.

Our analysis of historic data, based on a road traffic collision form used by police, found most fatal collisions on footways were apparently avoidable – most took place in fine weather, on well-lit streets, with no hazards on the road. In police parlance sometimes drivers simply “run out of talent”, driving above their ability, or above the speed limit, say. Most fatal footway collisions were beside urban roads, but some were on the pavements or verges of rural roads.

While walking is safe, and its upsides, from physical and mental health boosts to social benefits, far outweigh any risks, this research raises questions around how we tackle dangerous driving. Broadly, road casualty numbers have remained broadly unchanged since 2012, and although it rarely makes the headlines, pedestrians represent 23 per cent of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. As we all use pavements for at least part of most journeys, this affects us all. 

Some cases, identified via historical news reports, are more shocking than others – not least how the UK’s legal system deals with killer drivers. 

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In 2017 Richard Frost embarked on an 18-hour drug-taking binge before a prolonged bout of dangerous driving in Cambridgeshire, travelling at up to 117mph, using laybys and hard shoulders to undertake, as well as overtaking into oncoming traffic. Mr Frost hit 19-year-old Thomas Fletcher and Thomas Northam, 22, from behind on a verge on the opposite side of the road, killing them both. Mr Frost drove another 50m along the verge, before abandoning the car in a field and fleeing with £72,000 of stolen money in a briefcase. Police found him that night asleep at his mother’s home. Although police described it as the worst driving they have seen, or will probably ever see, Mr Frost will likely drive again, receiving a ban of just 11 years and 7 months, as well as a prison sentence of 12 years and one month. 

The oldest and youngest in society are disproportionately killed by drivers on pavements, with 28.1 per cent of pedestrian deaths of under-fives occurring on pavements. In 2016 a van driver ushered four-year-old Esme Weir and her pregnant mum across the road in Liverpool before mounting the pavement to park, killing Esme. The driver said he didn’t see Esme, and was cleared of any wrongdoing

By far the highest number of pedestrian fatalities, 104, were among those over age 75. Older people are potentially less able to get out of the way of out of control drivers, and are less likely to survive being hit. Young people were next highest fatality group, with 77 16-25 year-olds killed on pavements. The age groups 46-55 and 56-65 were 150 of the pavement fatalities. 

Donald Sharpe was 89 when 24-year-old Sian Phelps reversed her Land Rover Discovery Sport out of her drive across the pavement, hitting and then reversing over him, only stopping when she drove forward 10 metres and saw other motorists gesticulating at her and sounding a horn. She had checked her mirrors and looked both ways but didn’t see Sharpe, she says. Mr Sharpe, a well-loved man known for helping others, died six days later in hospital. Sian Phelps was cleared by a jury of causing death by dangerous driving.

Young drivers aged under 35 were overrepresented in collisions. Men are far more likely to be killed as pedestrians on our roads than women – in 15 years 3,902 male pedestrians were killed, compared with 1,943 females – but pavement fatalities were split evenly between genders, with 273 males and 275 females killed in 15 years.

What is the solution?

Many road safety experts see more and longer driving bans, rather than longer prison sentences, as the best deterrent, even for lower-level driving offences – sending a message that driving is a licensed activity, instead of a right. That isn’t happening, however.  

Research by RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, found driving bans dropped 54 per cent since 2008, with 70 per cent of disqualifications for drink or drug driving; drink driving comes with a mandatory ban, though this doesn’t always happen. Of 559,000 driving convictions in court in 2018, just five lifetime driving bans were given, and only 35 disqualifications of more than ten years.

“Driving bans are a punishment that truly fit the crime,” says RoadPeace’s Victoria Lebrec. “Families who are bereaved cannot understand how the person who killed their loved one is allowed back on the road in such a short time.”

The charity believes the decline is because either magistrates are reluctant to disqualify drivers, or because of a drop in prosecutions due to policing cuts. As excessive speed is the main factor in around half of road crashes, bans for speeding drivers could arguably have the greatest impact on road safety. But again, this is not happening. RoadPeace found that, in 2007, one in 18 speeding motorists was taken to court; in 2018 the chances of a speeding driver seeing court halved, to just one in 40. 

Chris Grayling, then justice secretary, announced a review of sentencing guidelines for drivers who kill, in 2013. In 2016, with Grayling as transport secretary, the government released a consultation into road traffic offences but, despite the 9,000 responses it received, little happened, beyond life sentences for the worst cases of fatally dangerous driving, and more license points and fines for using mobile phones at the wheel. There was also a pledge to look at driving disqualifications, which hasn’t happened yet.

The Sentencing Council last month announced it was looking to reduce the use of ‘hardship’ claims for drivers who tot up 12 or more penalty points: those who dodge a ban by claiming they would lose their job if they lost their license. For the families of thousands of pedestrians, and other road users, who have lost their lives over the past decade and a half, much more is needed. As Tanya Braun from walking charity Living Streets, puts it: “The current justice system is simply not an effective deterrent to dangerous behaviour. We need an urgent review of how the justice system deals with mistakes, carelessness, recklessness and deliberately dangerous behaviour by all road users.”

The research was carried out as part of Project Pedestrian, a year-long collaboration started in January 2020, between the Active Travel Academy myself, investigating pedestrian safety on the roads. Throughout the year research and analysis will reveal where and why pedestrians are at risk, and what some of the solutions are. The project aim is not to scare people off walking – but to raise awareness and seek a way to safer roads. 

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist specialising in cycling and urban transport.

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